In 2009, Peggie Ehlers was 52, divorced with two children to raise and no job prospects. But she had a skill she hoped she could turn into a career: a knowledge of how to process raw wool into unique, handcrafted yarns and knitwear.
That ability, along with her knitting and hand-spinning skills, inspired the Greenport resident to take some of her specialty yarns to SPINEXPO, a knitwear trade show in Manhattan. For Ehlers, now 60, it was the start of her career as a wool fiber entrepreneur, designer and advocate for sustainable farming on the East End.
Ehlers’ expertise on different sheep breeds and wool spinning has helped local fiber farmers produce yarns, garments and accessories for market. She supports fiber artisans by commissioning them to make woolen garments and wooden knitting accessories she sells at her retail space year-round in Riverhead; at farmers markets in Roslyn, Sag Harbor, Greenlawn and East Setauket from May through November; and online.
Fiber farming is an industry being embraced by some livestock farmers on the East End. “Long Island has a vibrant fiber community,” says Herb Strobel, director of the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead. “Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve seen a resurgence of livestock agriculture across Suffolk County, driven by more people interested in breeding — mainly sheep, and some llamas and alpacas. At the same time there has been an increase in the fiber arts.”
It’s a small but enthusiastic market. Of the 659 Long Island farms listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012, the latest census figures available, Strober says about two dozen do some form of fiber farming.
“On Long Island, particularly the North Fork, sheep and wool are part of our agriculture,” says Ehlers, an advocate of the farm-to-fashion movement. Supporters advocate knowing where and how your wool and cotton fibers are sourced and made, Ehlers says. The movement emphasizes sustainable agricultural practices, buying organic and local, and the humane treatment of garment workers and fiber-producing animals. After watching videos of the cruel treatment of Angora rabbits, Ehlers decided to raise her own German Giant Angora bunnies, which she shears herself. For her part, Ehlers wears only organic wool and cotton fiber, shops vintage everything, and buys groceries locally.
As a fiber consultant, Ehlers’ specialty is the ability to discern what to do with raw wool from sheep and other wool-fiber animals, and how to make it salable. By educating fiber producers about their sheep breed and how to dye, spin and manufacture the raw wool, she sees herself as helping these farmers grow their business.
Carol Edwards is the associate knitwear designer at Stoll Knit Resource in Manhattan. “Peggie Ehlers is a voice for all of us, part of the grass-roots farm-to-fashion movement,” Edwards says. “How should the raw wool be spun? Dyed? Should it be knit into a sweater or woven into a blanket? That takes a middleman like Ehlers,” she says. “We all specialize in one area. Ehlers is different. She sees the bigger picture — what the final product will be.”
Handspun organic wool is costlier ($30 a skein versus $10 or less for synthetic yarns), Edwards says, but it is also more durable and has an emotional appeal. “This yarn is grown from our land — from Long Island. There is a pride we all have in taking something that is made by hand and making it commercially viable.”
Ehlers helps fiber farmers determine what to do with the raw wool sheared from their animals. “Peggie Ehlers is innovative, always coming up with new products, taking it to the next level,” Holly Browder says. She and her husband, Chris, own Browder’s Birds, an organic poultry farm in Mattituck. After buying a flock of Cotswold sheep to “mow the lawn,” they hired Ehlers to teach them about their sheep breed and advise them on how to spin and mill the fleece, and manufacture products from the yarn.
“When our wool was sheared, its color was natural, and Peggie said, ‘I can dye this for you.’ She was able to make it more appealing for consumers,” Browder says. “We’re trying to connect people back to the land and the animals. It is where our food, and fiber comes from. Peggie is helpful with ideas. She has a wealth of information.”
Benefits of natural fiber
In 2013, the Browders commissioned Ehlers to dye raw wool from their sheep. Since then, they have launched a line of fingerless gloves, infinity scarves, leg warmers and blankets.
At the Green Earth Natural Foods Market in Riverhead, where Ehlers has retail space, she talks to customers about the environmental and health benefits of natural fiber. Shoppers are also drawn to her spinning demonstrations.
“Two years ago, I came to the farmers market with my twin grandchildren, when they were 8,” says Regina Kratt, 74, of Garden City, who is a fiber hobbyist. “Ehlers had her spinning wheel. She showed them how she makes yarn. She sat each one of them down, and showed them how to pedal and feed the yarn.”
Ehlers calls her farm-to-fashion collection NUNA KNITS (nunaknits.com). The yarns are from fiber farmers in Riverhead and her silk-screened merino scarves are by a Rockville Centre artist. She also has Alpaca socks manufactured by a mill upstate. The mill producer’s wife is a 12th-generation descendant of a Long Island farming family, she says.
Ehlers also restores midcentury cashmere sweaters and Pendleton blankets she had repurposed into shawls by a Hempstead seamstress. The pieces were cleaned with a laundry detergent she developed with Valley Stream chemist Bill Coulter. “She is an expert in fibers,” Coulter says of Ehlers. “From my experience in laundry products, she has a thorough understanding of wool and natural fibers.”
At $28 a pair, Ehlers’ alpaca socks might seem pricey, but they have won praise. Joseph Welling, 27, of Smithtown, who was at the Christopher Morley farmers market in Roslyn on a recent Wednesday, says, “I went to a camping music festival. It rained the whole time, and my feet stayed warm and cool.”
Ehlers graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1981 with a degree in graphic design. She worked as a product manager in Manhattan before opening her design firm in Riverhead in 1989. After marriage and two children, Ehlers decided to close her business in 1995 to be a stay-at-home mom.
In 2000, Ehlers met veteran knitter Louise Vance of Calverton. Vance, now 89, taught Ehlers how to knit, hand spin, and design garments based on a mathematical system that uses a person’s measurements. “She made me the knitter and designer I am today,” Ehlers says.
Vance returns the compliment. “She follows the fashion industry,” she says of Ehlers. “She is a designer in her own right.”
‘Let’s see how good I am’
The game changer for Ehlers was learning how to spin the yarn. With her Norm Hall spinning wheel, she learned how to blend different wool yarns based on their fiber properties. “At SPINEXPO, I thought, ‘Let’s see how good I am,’ ” Ehlers says. Her hunch paid off: A buyer came by, saw her samples and said, “I like everything at this end of the table,” Ehlers recalls. “It was the validation that I could do this, and that’s how it started.”
That fall, after being awarded a $5,000 New York State Arts & Education teaching grant, Ehlers added $1,000 of her own money to develop and teach a six-week, third-grade social studies unit on the history of the world fiber economy. “Soon after,” she says, “I decided I would make this a profession.”
Steve Siegelwaks, owner of Green Earth Natural Foods Market, says, “By applying herself and educating herself about natural fibers and the animals who produce them, Peggie Ehlers has become a master designer and textile artist.”
The effort she has put into her career has been worthwhile for Ehlers, who says she makes a comfortable living from her involvement with the farm-to-fashion philosophy. “If you use good ingredients and make a good product,” she says, “the money will come.”